Promech Air Crash in Alaska

The reason that we didn’t go on the floatplane flight during our Alaska cruise was that it was too expensive. It didn’t occur to me that it might be dangerous. I have flown high above Alaska hundreds of times. I have notices that the weather there stinks most of the time. I have ridden in an Islander across Kodiak Island a few times. During those flights I rode with mostly young, but always very conscientious pilots. I am always stimulated by the stories of bush pilots “water skiing” across a stretch of water and stopping in incredibly short distances once on shore. I found a report called “Fatal and Serious Injury Accidents in Alaska, A Retrospective of the years 2004 through 2009 with Special Emphasis on Post Crash survival.” While not all that much fun to read about accidents, it is undeniably interesting. The leading causes of accidents in this report: Spin/stall loss of control, and continued VFR into IFR conditions. As a veteran scud runner back in my younger years, I can sympathize with the pilots in the Alaska environment. In Alaska, if one is to fly at all on any given day, it will likely be in and out of low clouds. At one moment you are flying along at low altitude with acceptable visibility, suddenly you’re in solid IMC (instrument meteorological conditions, in the clouds). You can either make a 180 degree turn and hope you miss the mountains, or pull up and beg for an instrument clearance.  Most of the pilots involved in these accidents were in their 40s and 50s, with 5000-8000 hours of flying time. These are not newbies. The statistics show the third cause of accidents to be “willful violation.” Also “rogue pilot” category showed 100% fatality when involved in an accident.

Of course, inexperienced pilots are always at greater risk, but is Alaska a place that will eventually “get” you if you fly there long enough? I can’t say for sure, but if my pilot has a good GPS display with terrain, the weather is acceptable, and he or she convinces me that we have the same (conservative) concept of risk, then I’m ready to go flying.

For all you Alaskan flight department managers out there: Have you had a safety audit lately? Can your pilots cancel a flight and keep their job? Do your aircraft have GPS/terrain?

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Soloed in 1962. Seven years in USAF flying F-101, F-102, F-106. Got lucky and hired by Delta in 1977. Flew most of theirs, retiring in 2006 off the B-777. Owned and did some airshows in T-33. ALPA's Human Performance guy for 20 years. Helped develop IFALPA and ICAO policy on Automation and Workload. Fly a V-35B Bonanza now.

One thought on “Promech Air Crash in Alaska”

  1. I have been contemplating over your discussion here Don and it harkens me back to an experience I had at the start of my “professional” pilot career flying helicopters at the ripe old age of twenty three. I had a Helicopter business operating one Bell 206 in support of a real estate entrepreneur in the Pocono Mountains. My mission that day was to fly from our mountain resort to PHL and return later that day. The nearest fuel depot for me was thirty miles from my home base so I routinely filled up upon the days end of flying. That morning with wind blowing steeply out of the north, I landed at my designated LZ and awaited my passenger. He was on time and with three more guys in tow, much to my surprise. It was a cold morning with a stiff wind so I decided, rather than hover taxi the length of the parking lot, I would simply take off into the wind. What a plan. I was hovering at about 68%, lots of reserve, and I eased the cyclic forward and instantly felt that shudder and “whoosh” associated with translational lift and I was climbing at a good rate. I eased back on the cyclic and pulled a little more pitch as I approached the telephone pole and phone and power lines. I was climbing in the stiff wind very well. As I crested the obstacles, the wind suddenly shifted and there I sat, not moving at all about four feet above the electric lines. I pulled a little more collective to 100% and looked through the chin bubble at those wires for what seemed an eternity. As quickly as my climbed stopped, it started again with another whoosh and out we climbed on our way to PHL and my heart was dam near pounding out of my chest for the first ten minutes of the flight.

    I guess the point of this story for me Don, is I didn’t know the hazards associated with mountainous terrain and strong winds. I saw the wires, and felt the wind in my face but I did not have an emotional attachment to what could happen if things did not work out as I predicted they would. I understood performance and weight considerations but I didn’t get the idea that winds like that could cause me to loose lift the way it happened. After that day, I will tell you I NEVER flew out of that LZ with a full bag a gas in a strong wind. And I always hover taxied the entire length of the parking lot for extra room on departure. I now had a very real and personal relationship with mountain hazards and always gave my self an out or two. That scared me!

    I wonder if, in your story, those pilots had a personal relationship with the hazard they were confronted with or were they simply trained about “such and such” fog or “so and so” cloud bases? Conversely, could they have had many experiences flying perilously close to the hillsides and popped in and out of cloud hundreds of times. Could it be, this time, they didn’t pop out of the clouds? Might a closer and more personal relationship with hazards associated with the mission help drive home what to avoid, what risks are not worth taking? I am not suggesting that people scare themselves but rather, maybe we need a more vibrant or impactful way of highlighting the effects of certain hazards on our missions.

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